Peace of Blues guitarist Kepha Arcemont had planned a night of guitar slinging at Canyon Road Barn & Grill reminiscent of his guitar hero, Jimi Hendrix, slaying the stage 50 years ago at Woodstock.
A lanky, white-haired 59-year-old, Arcemont has been a fan of Hendrix since he was a teenager growing up in New Orleans. He is such a fan that on Saturday night in late July, he swapped the signature white Afro wig he’s been known to wear onstage for an authentic replica hat that Hendrix had worn onstage at Woodstock in 1969.
So when a patron at Canyon Road reminded him that he was required to play the national anthem at the beginning of the set, Arcemont quickly found Hendrix’s version of the national anthem, put his phone up to the microphone and played it through his buddy’s PA system. He figured Hendrix’s version would be better since he doesn’t have the vocal range to sing it or the chops to set his guitar on fire like Hendrix.
Arcemont figured wrong.
Band members were forced to leave before playing the rest of their set, and though he faced the flag and placed his hand over his heart, Arcemont says bar owner Kent Thomspon admonished him for not removing his hat during the national anthem. Now he says he knows how NFL players like Colin Kaepernick felt when they began taking the knee in protest during the national anthem.
“(Thompson) made me feel like a leftist liberal trying to start shit,” Arcemont says. “You know the rhetoric is bad when a 59-year-old white conservative gets attacked by another white conservative.”
Arcemont was lucky he didn’t get beaten for forgetting to remove his hat. Canyon Road is located in Breckenridge about two hours west of Dallas, deep in the heart of a conservative county where God, country and then family is a maxim ingrained in the culture as strongly as apple pie.
Not long after throwing the band offstage, Thompson posted a friendly reminder on Canyon Road’s Facebook page for bands seeking to play there in the future: “If you are a band that is scheduled to play at Canyon Road, please note how serious I am about the National Anthem being PERFORMED NOT played through a phone!” he wrote in a July 20 Facebook post. “I distributed $100 amongst the patrons for the jukebox and fired the band...COME FOR THE FOOD AND STAY FOR THE ... Jukebox???”
A Marine veteran, Thompson is no stranger to the media. When NFL players began taking a knee in protest during the national anthem, he was one of several restaurant owners who boycotted NFL games at their restaurants. Eater, People and Fox News covered the story.
He opened Canyon Road in 2015 and offers a tasty choice of Southern-style food, including Canyon Chips (deep-fried breaded jalapeño slices).
Thompson says he didn’t start asking bands to play the national anthem until jazz trumpeter Lynn Swann requested to play the national anthem during his set in 2017. Standing in front of an American flag backdrop onstage, he blew the crowd away with his rendition and inspired Thompson to start a tradition of asking bands to perform it in their sets.
Thompson claims he told Arcemont about the requirement when he auditioned to play there and reminded him about it on the day of the show: “first song, first set,” he says.
"The Star Spangled Banner" is a difficult request for bands to fulfill. M. Tye Comer, senior director of Billboard, told Fox News in 2016:
“The national anthem is an incredibly challenging song to sing. It feels easy because it’s so familiar, but it has a 1½-octave range, which means you have to have strong vocal control in order to really do it justice. It’s one of the hardest songs for non-professional singers to execute, but it’s brought a lot of seasoned vocalists to their knees as well.”
Jared McGovern, a Navy veteran and banjo player and vocalist of Urban Pioneers, was one of those bands that had sought to play at Canyon Road and shared Thompson’s Facebook post. He wrote that he was glad that his band didn’t play there when he discovered Thompson’s national anthem requirement.
“'The Star Spangled Banner' is a beautiful song that evokes a lot of emotions from all Americans,” McGovern says. “But truth be told, it is a difficult song to perform.
“Situations like this are happening all over the country right now because of our political divide,” he adds. “The owner is a vet and a self-proclaimed patriot and falls in line with the ‘love it or leave it’ mentality that most conservatives have nowadays.”
Upon learning that Thompson had posted about the incident on Facebook, Arcemont quickly appeared on Canyon Road’s page to defend himself, claiming his civil rights had been violated: “You can't tell someone how to express their patriotism, unless you want to have a socialist state and country! Anyone who knows me, knows my love for this country and I was treated like a criminal for my expression!”
But it’s a gray area in constitutional law since Thompson’s establishment is a private business. In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited public officials from punishing an individual for not reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
“Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters,” the court wrote in a similar case a couple of years earlier. “Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.”
For private employers in many states (including Texas), the “employment at will” doctrine protects them. First Amendment rights to free speech and expression primarily protect people from governments.
A majority of the commenters on Thompson’s Facebook post expressed agreement with Thompson and commended him for staying true to his values. “Kent has been nothing short of amazing to us and every other band that plays there,” wrote country singer Ariel Hutchins. “He feeds us, gives us free drinks, houses us for BEFORE and AFTER the show and provides the best protection around. He doesn’t force patriotism on anyone. He just proudly asks you perform the National Anthem before every show.”
A few others disagreed. “Forced patriotism is the antithesis of patriotism,” one commenter replied. “So sad that it’s come to this. What an ass-backwards establishment.”
Arcemont says that he felt that the incident that resulted had more to do with the fact that he played Hendrix’s version of the national anthem and pointed it out on Facebook.
One Canyon Road worker claimed it simply wasn’t true. “We take our country’s tribute very seriously,” she wrote. “We have never had anyone hold their phone up to the microphone during our National Anthem! That is what was disrespectful! All of our bands know and understand as any person with pride would understand that you honor our flag and you would kindly put the lyrics into words. Doesn’t matter if your vocals aren’t the best. What matters is the respect!”
Thompson says he didn’t have a problem with Hendrix’s version or the rock ‘n’ roll Arcemont planned to unleash that night. His problem, he says, involved Arcemont seeking him out with his eyes and giving him the peace sign after Hendrix finished playing.
“He gave that long-held peace sign like a swinging dick,” Thompson says. “He did that in my house.”
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Or, as he wrote on Facebook: It was “a solid act of smartass defiance and cockiness that warranted a grown ass man ass whoppin. Did I grown ass man ass whoop you? No I didn't. I paid your full fee, tabs and asked you to pack your shit and get out of MY HOUSE because the sign on MY front door reads: ‘We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.’"
Shortly after he was forced to leave, Arcemont claims he submitted a letter to President Trump on the White House website and asked him to tone down his rhetoric because “some of his supporters are taking the political rhetoric too far!” Arcemont wrote in a July 31 email to the Dallas Observer. “This political tweeting/social media back and forth dissing each other is creating to me what I’d call, ‘political self righteousness.’ The (expletive) at Canyon Roads didn’t want an explanation. He pushed his viewpoint of patriotism on me where we were just an inch from a violent confrontation … all in the name of patriotism!”
Arcemont plans to speak with an attorney in Austin to find out if his civil rights were violated. He also says that he now has a different perspective on why Kaepernick bending the knee in protest during the national anthem was so important. It has to do with freedom of expression.
“When he did that, Kaepernick pissed me off,” Arcemont says. “Now that I look at it, I respect the man. If I were to meet him, I’d tell him, ‘More power to you.’”